Book Title: Ellen Outside the Lines
Author: A.J. Sass
Release Date: March 22nd, 2022
Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary, LGBTQ+, Neurodiversity
My rating: 5/5 Stars
Rain Reign meets Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World in this heartfelt novel about a neurodivergent thirteen-year-old navigating changing friendships, a school trip, and expanding horizons.
Thirteen-year-old Ellen Katz feels most comfortable when her life is well planned out and people fit neatly into her predefined categories. She attends temple with Abba and Mom every Friday and Saturday. Ellen only gets crushes on girls, never boys, and she knows she can always rely on her best-and-only friend, Laurel, to help navigate social situations at their private Georgia middle school.
Laurel has always made Ellen feel like being autistic is no big deal. But lately, Laurel has started making more friends, and cancelling more weekend plans with Ellen than she keeps. A school trip to Barcelona seems like the perfect place for Ellen to get their friendship back on track. Except it doesn’t.
Toss in a new nonbinary classmate whose identity has Ellen questioning her very binary way of seeing the world, homesickness, a scavenger hunt-style team project that takes the students through Barcelona to learn about Spanish culture and this trip is anything but what Ellen planned.
Making new friends and letting go of old ones is never easy, but Ellen might just find a comfortable new place for herself if she can learn to embrace the fact that life doesn’t always stick to a planned itinerary.
I’ve always been a big fan of middle grade novels, and Ellen Outside the Lines captured everything I love about the genre. Ellen was such a wonderful protagonist and I greatly enjoyed watching their journey of self-discovery. While Ellen’s character might have been my favorite part of this book, there’s also so much to love here. The discussion of gender and sexuality, the meaning of friends and family, and the fun times had in Barcelona made for such an exciting read that was hard to put down.
Before going any further, I simply have to praise the autism representation in this book. Finding authentic and genuine autistic rep is so difficult, even in 2022, but Ellen’s story felt so personal and relatable. Something I completely loved was the way Ellen had to follow rules and couldn’t understand why others wouldn’t. She got very overwhelmed and confused when pressured to do otherwise. As someone who has always seen rules as hard lines to follow, rather than “simply suggestions” as my peers seemed to think, I could totally empathize with Ellen and their uncertainty and hesitation. Her need to keep things the same and consistent put them in some tricky situations, and my heart hurt for her, because I know how that feels. Ellen was torn between their loyalty and routines with Laurel, and their newfound comradery with Isa, Andy, and Gibbs. This put her into some uncomfortable situations where she had no idea what to do or how to proceed in fear of hurting either party. I know Ellen made some mistakes towards the end, but I could never truly be mad, because her heart was always in the right place. She didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and she desperately wanted to avoid conflict. This is something I deeply related to, so getting to see Ellen figure all of this out and contemplate the best course of action was so personal.
I also loved the addition of stimming! For some reason, I feel like a lot of books with autistic characters don’t actually include much stimming, and if they do, they don’t actually refer to it as stimming. Maybe I understand why, but it made me so happy when Ellen was describing their different types of stims. I also flap when I’m excited and rock when I’m nervous or uncomfortable, and reading some of these scenes had me wanting to flap along with them.
In addition to adoring Ellen as a protagonist, I also really enjoyed reading about her friendship with Andy, Gibbs, and Isa. This group helped Ellen to put certain things in perspective, helped her feel accepted, and let her know it’s okay to be themself. Before meeting Isa, Ellen had never really heard about non-binary people or any gender other than male or female, so they definitely went through a learning experience, one I think will be excellent for young readers to share and educate themselves with. Isa’s character was wonderful. They were so confident, so fully themself, and they wouldn’t take any disrespect from anyone. When someone did something wrong, Isa called them out on it. It was so great to see. Andy and Gibbs were also a wonderful addition to the team and really rounded out the group.
Another thing I can’t praise enough about Ellen Outside the Lines is the representation. Not even just the autism representation, but the gay representation, the non-binary representation, the ADHD representation, the Jewish representation, and the Catalan representation. There’s so much packed into this story, and all of it is explained in easy-to-understand terms for younger readers, but never does it feel forced or put into the story simply for educational purposes. All of it felt so natural, which is how representation should be. It was so good!
Honestly, I could go on and on about Ellen Outside the Lines. It brought me so much joy to read Ellen’s journey. I just wish I’d had a book like this when I was younger; however, I am so grateful that young readers today will get the change to experience it. I can’t recommend this book enough!
Thank you so much to TBR and Beyond Tours, NetGalley, and the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
About the Author:
A. J. Sass (he/they) is an author, editor, and competitive figure skater who is interested in how intersections of identity, neurodiversity, and allyship can impact story narratives. He is the author of Ana on the Edge, a Booklist Editors’ Choice 2020 and ALA 2021 Rainbow Book List Top 10 for Young Readers selection, and Ellen Outside the Lines (Little, Brown, 2022), the co-author of Camp QUILTBAG* with Nicole Melleby (Algonquin, 2023), as well as a contributor to the This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us (Knopf) and Allies: Real Talk about Showing Up, Screwing Up, and Trying Again (DK US & UK) anthologies. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his boyfriend and two cats who act like dogs.
Check out my last ARC Review: Yagi the Bookshop Goat (ARC Review)